Before they went mainstream, personals were a way for same-sex couples to discreetly connect.
Has the Internet really revolutionized dating? Or is hijacking tech for love and sex just what humans do?
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Hardly a week goes by without another new think piece about online dating either revolutionizing society or completely ruining our ability to have real relationships. But these hyperbolic pronouncements miss a deeper fact:
At its core, "online dating" isn't something we just started doing 5, 10 or even 20 years ago. Before the Internet, there were personal ads, and before that, lonely shepherds carved detailed works of art into tree bark to communicate their longing for human contact.
Since the earliest days of mass media and technology, people have been finding ways to broadcast their desires and find connections that might have otherwise eluded them. I mean, one could argue that even Voyager 1's Golden Record is kind of a massive, interstellar personal ad (complete with the recorded sound of a kiss!) out to the universe. It's as if humanity decided to document all our best features and send them into space with this message:
Lonely humans seek extraterrestrial lifeforms in Milky Way or nearby. Open to all body types.
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The modern newspaper was invented in 1690, and the first personals followed soon after. So dating apps are really the latest manifestation of human beings doing what we've always done -- create new tools to communicate and then turn around and use those tools to find love, sex and companionship.
1695: The First Personal Ads
According to history professor H.G. Cocks (seriously --The Best Name Ever for an academic) personal ads began as a way to help British bachelors find eligible wives. One of the earliest personals ever placed was by a 30-year-old man, with "a very good estate', announcing he was in search of 'some good young gentlewoman that has a fortune of £3,000 or thereabouts." (£3,000 is equivalent to roughly £300,000 today. #ShamelesslySeekingSugarMomma...)
1700s: Personal Ads for Homosexual Safety
Personal ads were one of the only ways for the gay and lesbian communities to meet discreetly and safely at this time. Less-Than-Fun fact: homosexuality was outlawed and punishable by death in the UK by wife-murderer Henry VIII and continued to be illegal until 1967. During this time, gathering sites for gay men known as Molly Houses were subject to regular raids by law enforcement. (Meanwhile in the future U.S.A., anyone accused of being a "sodomite" doing "buggery" was also legally sentenced to death as of 1776.) Coded words, female names and other signals in personals were channels to privately expressing vulnerability and find companionship that society forbade.
1727: Women Get Smacked Down for Expressing Personal Desire
In 1727, Englishwoman Helen Morrison became the first woman to place an ad in a Lonely Hearts column. She convinced the editor of the Manchester Weekly Journal to place a small ad stating she was "seeking someone nice to spend her life with." (It's radical, I know.....)
A man responded to Helen, but it was not the man she was hoping for. It was the mayor, who had her committed to an insane asylum for four weeks.
Women asking for what they want -- clearly delusional to 18th century dudes.
1800s: Aristocrats Catch On
Always on the lookout for ways to exploit media for their own ends, aristocrats in the 1800s used personal ads to broadcast their interest in romantic engagements that seem scandalous by today's standards. An 1841 ad in the Journal of Munich tells of a 70-year-old Baron seeking a woman "between 16 and 20 having good teeth and little feet."
(Well... maybe not that much has changed for the one percent? )
Mid 1800s: The General Public Follows
In the mid-19th century, the need to advertise for a husband or wife was still considered a "failure" and associated with deviant behavior for many judgmental straight, white, middle-to-upper class people. But as magazines and periodicals such as The Wedding Bell in the US and The Correspondent, Matrimonial Herald and Marriage Gazette in the UK hit the newsstands with immense popularity, matchmaking and personals took off as well, creating the first wave of true mainstream normalization for the personal ad.
Late 1800s: The Scam Emerges
You know, someone's always got to ruin the party. The popularity of personals paved the way for grifters who soon realized that they could prey on the vulnerability of people seeking love. Scam artists caused a scandal that many newspapers ran with, and personals disappeared practically overnight as public attitudes became more cautious. Phishing, fake profiles, and ads for escorts continue this tradition today.
Early 1900s: The Lonely Rural Farmers, Ranchers and Shepherds
Around the turn of the last century, personal ads enjoyed a renaissance of popularity, especially in the Western US with low populations and the harsh realities of rural life without a partner. (Farmers Only continues the legacy to find "where all the country girls are" today.)
Some very pragmatic examples of early 20th century personals:
HOUSEKEEPER: 18 to 30 years of age, wanted by widower, 40. Have prominent position with the rail company, have 75-acre ranch also house in town; object matrimony if suited; have boy 13 years old, would not object to housekeeper having child. Can give best references.
Young woman, reared in luxury, having lost everything and earned her living for the past eight years, is tired of teaching and wishes a home: would like to meet a well-to-do businessman who would appreciate refinement and affection in a wife. Object: matrimony.
If only these two had found each other's personals then.....
1920s: Lonely WWI Soldiers Seek Pen Pals
Personal ads went mainstream again in the early 20th century, when social pressures to get married by 21 (and thus, expectations for relationships) were much lower, thankfully than their earlier incarnations. Many of the postings were simply calls for friends or pen pals. These kinds of ads were especially fashionable among lonely soldiers during World War I.
1960s: Counterculture and Computer Love
Removed from the context of wartime, old stigmas crept back in. Like the Internet today, lonely hearts ads were suspected of harboring all sort of scams and perversities. Because they were often used by homosexuals and sex workers, British police continued to prosecute those who placed personals until the late 1960s, when ads became part of the burgeoning youth counterculture.
Meanwhile, a new technology was emerging. In 1965, a team of Harvard undergrads created Operation Match, the world's first computer dating service. For $3, users could answer questionnaires and receive a list of potential matches, a process that is still used by many dating sites.
1990s-2000s: Second Wave of Mainstream
The explosion of the Internet in the mid-to-late 1990s created a new context for personals, and by the end of the decade, they had become relatively acceptable. Even before the Web itself, bulletin boards and newsgroups hosted a variety of ways people could use technology to meet others with similar interests, including dating. Services such as America Online, Prodigy and eventually Craigslist offered chat rooms, forums and online classifieds of use to singles. By the time Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan AOL'd each other in You've Got Mail, it had become clear that the Internet was going to change every aspect of our lives forever -- including love and romance. Match.com was founded in 1995, and by 2007, online dating had become the second highest online industry for paid content. (....Can you guess what's #1?)
2010 - Today
By 2010, different dating sites existed for virtually every city, sexual orientation, religion, race and almost every hobby, making it easier to find exactly what we're looking for and harder to stumble on someone who exists outside our pre-defined bubbles of identity.
In 2002, Wired Magazine predicted, "Twenty years from now, the idea that someone looking for love won't look for it online will be silly, akin to skipping the card catalog to instead wander the stacks because 'the right books are found only by accident.'"
Online dating is the new norm for introductions, replacing the role of traditional personals and in many cases, merging with the functions of social media. If we are going to improve the way people meet one another, we're going to have to do so by questioning the existing paradigms of online dating and figuring out how to do it better.
One thing is certain: the tenacity with which human beings will seek each other out with any tool available is inspiring. Ultimately, we use the technology of online dating because we crave connection and that desire alone timeless and connects us always.